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The Saint of Bright Doors coverThe Saint of Bright Doors begins as the story of a boy with exceptional abilities, and exceptional parents, striving to become an extremely ordinary young man. Fetter’s magic appears unremarkable when compared to his upbringing—his mother wholly focuses her own existence, and his, on the destruction of his cult-leader father. But as he later tries to establish a different, freer life in his small corner of a big city, The Saint of Bright Doors grows beyond Fetter to capture our real world’s history and present. In the guise of a narrative about a reluctant hero, it becomes a story about the people and power structures that shape us, about the way establishment and its violence, even when we’re ignorant of it—even when we ignore it—inhabit our lives, and about communal resistance.

Mother-of-Glory sends thirteen-year-old Fetter out into the world with the advice that “The only way to change the world is through intentional, directed violence” (p. 11). These are bold words to those of us raised in Western hegemony, which only justifies violence (reframed as self-defence) when it is perpetrated by those same powers who teach us it is otherwise morally abhorrent. Indeed, we are taught that it’s dangerous for brown people to talk about violence except to condemn it. To explain her words, we might tell ourselves Mother-of-Glory is no more than an abusive parent; after all, she has just spent the first chapter of The Saint of Bright Doors shaping her son into a weapon to kill his father, the Perfect and Kind, and bring down his cult. Alternatively, those of us who don’t subscribe to that hegemonic framing of violence could agree with her and look forward to Fetter fulfilling his apparent destiny. Readers who enjoyed R.F. Kuang’s Babel, or the Necessity of Violence might note the resemblance between the titular sentiment and Mother-of-Glory’s words, and anticipate a straightforward takedown of Western colonialism.

But The Saint of Bright Doors isn’t rooted in the West. The main character and his name, Fetter, derive from the story of Rāhula, the son of Yaśodharā and Siddhārtha (who later becomes Buddha). Many other aspects of Chandrasekera’s debut novel will be recognisable to readers who know the history and politics of Sri Lanka. I couldn’t directly match every element of this fantasy world to Sri Lanka’s colonisation, communist revolutions, or civil war and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, but the narrative captures a wide sweep of related themes by embedding them deep into the setting of Luriat city and its “hinterlands.” This backdrop, which I’ll return to later, includes a familiar history of violence imposed by civilian, religious, and state groups; caste hierarchies and racism; changing political regimes; and the pervasive influence of religious nationalism. Fetter witnesses people and vehicles set alight under the watch of The Path—that is, with the sanction, if not the participation, of religious and law-enforcement authorities—in scenes that could have been taken directly from the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms (Black July) in Colombo. Yet, for all the powers the Perfect and Kind possesses, there are several larger cults than his in other regions, and despite all that occurs, we are told Luriat and its surroundings are only a small part of a vast continent. This information might seem to diminish events that are world-changing for the novel’s characters, but I see it as an invitation to hold a global perspective alongside a story-centric one.

As for the characters’ relationships with violence, the teenage Fetter, unsurprisingly, rejects his mother’s training. He finds relief in leaving Acusdab, his small hometown inhabited by devils, devil-doctors, and an extended family with whom he lacks close ties, to disappear into quiet, urban life in Luriat—which could just about be our contemporary world, with apartment buildings, mobile phones, email, and plastic swivel chairs. He helps newer migrants navigate Luriati paperwork, meets other un-chosen ones who have escaped their destinies, and finds a boyfriend. It’s only after we get to know Fetter in young adulthood and revisit their relationship that we learn how intimately Mother-of-Glory knows the trauma of colonisation and stolen history, and see her parenting in a different light:

 ...they conquered us before we knew they were invading…They brought doctrines of shame and disgust for the body and the glorification of the perfected mind. (p. 104)

By this time, though, Fetter has new personal ties—ones that could become close, if he allows.

Although the city ensures its population’s basic needs are taken care of through social welfare, its impenetrable caste stratification keeps Fetter in his quiet life until he’s offered an opportunity to study the city’s unique bright doors by impersonating a wealthier, caste-privileged student. The research of these bright doors isn’t far removed from real-world natural sciences fieldwork, with its immersion in observation and experimentation. In Chandrasekera’s world, the fantastical—the mysteriously-forming bright doors, the so-called “devils” (also known as “invisible laws and powers”) that only Fetter can see, or the magical abilities of the chosen (and un-chosen) ones—are merely unexplained natural phenomena. More baffling are the human structures: the politics and bureaucracy of Luriat city, and the operations of zealotic religious cults such as The Path. Unfortunately for Fetter, the information he gathers both as a scholar and through his un-chosen comrades upends his new life and—with a period wandering the internment camps, reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Titus—sends him into direct conflict with those latter, human elements, forcing a re-evaluation of his place in the world.

The Saint of Bright Doors, then, tells the story of Fetter as a boy raised by his mother to destroy his father. But it also tells the story of Fetter as a young man who makes himself a new, quiet life as a low-status migrant in Luriat; of Fetter who has rejected the destiny imposed by his mother to find community among other un-chosen; of Fetter who disguises himself as a bold student driven by curiosity about the bright doors; of Fetter, a wanderer in exile; of Fetter, the son of the Perfect and Kind. Like any of us, Fetter is a different person in different contexts—but his identities become more divided than most because, in spite of his extraordinary upbringing and abilities, he would rather be ordinary and focus on his own needs.

Those of us from countries that have experienced widespread violence might appreciate in Fetter’s journey the realisation of how rapidly and frighteningly the world can change—in a way unexpected and violent even for a character primed for violence from infancy. It might be a lack of other options that drives Fetter to abandon his numerous identities and take greater action but here, again, the book captures something critical about our own world. “There is no more time for compartmentalizing your life, your work, and your politics,” Chandrasekera wrote recently in his blog, in reference to Palestine and creating art that is political—and this seems to be the journey that Fetter also finds himself making.

*

Fetter’s journey can’t be separated from his environment. It is influenced by people, phenomena, and structures that, until they come to the fore, meld easily into the setting: devils, ID cards, the caste-privileged committee and research team he meets as a student of the bright doors, the plague years and pogrom years, The Path. In the same way that the wonder of our surroundings becomes ordinary with age, and new encounters simply map onto existing experience, it becomes increasingly uncommon to read fictional settings as unexpected as in The Saint of Bright Doors. And yet, what really is unexpected for me about Fetter’s hometown of Acusdab, the city of Luriat, or the places that preceded them before they were written out of existence and memory?

Colonialism tries to consign indigenous people to ancient history and ensure the colonised remember only their rewritten narratives. Mother-of-Glory’s recollection of the old world and its loss—which those around her have forgotten—and her raising of Fetter to execute revenge on those who stole her people’s knowledge and history, are a reflection of real-world intergenerational colonial trauma. The entirety of my childhood, albeit spent overseas, fit into the years of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the tension of that time is woven into the fabric of Luriat. The Kafkaesque institutions of the camps surrounding the city, for me, are reminiscent of the internment camps in which tens of thousands of Tamils were imprisoned for years after the civil war. When Fetter has his own encounter with the authorities, Chandrasekera’s prose elegantly captures his fear and dread:

Recognizing the gramarye of dehumanization does nothing to prevent it from working its way upon his body and his mind. (p. 239)

We see quarantine hotels and pandemic management as a tool to control the public; state violence and the inseparable links between politics and religion; executions of prisoners, military abduction and disappearances of “low-caste” people in poor neighbourhoods; frequent police or military checks and surveillance. There are hints of colonial institutions that remain even after the coloniser is gone, like the “Colonial Police” and the “Absent Queen,” and a reference to “United Nations blue.” Religion has overwritten every aspect of the region’s history, through magic or manipulation of the narrative. A reference to a monk “discovering” historical worship sites in an area inhabited by “enemies of the faith” reminds us of a process underway in parts of Sri Lanka today.

And it’s not just the large-scale setting and themes that are familiar, but the smallest of details: the “drapes” and “camisas” worn by people in Luriat; meeting in a “kadé” for a meal; tuk tuks driving the streets; white as the colour of death and monks in saffron robes; the prevalence of temples and “waking fig” trees (the sacred fig, or bodhi tree). Even the way Fetter lives near the beach but never visits it reminds me of time spent in Colombo. Maybe I’m reading too much into these details, knowing that Chandrasekera is a Sri Lankan writer. As a diasporan Tamil, I’m not well equipped for comparisons. I know only secondhand the displacement from the north to Colombo, and how big an adjustment it is: like Fetter’s, my family’s history was lost in one place, and our present occurs in others. But his experience of Luriat uniquely captures the disorientation, unease, and potential I have felt visiting Colombo.

Shehan Karunatilaka, another Sinhalese author, recently wrote a well-received speculative novel in English that features the real Colombo—the 2022 Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. That book is set in late 1980s Colombo and in a parallel, post-death plane of existence. I mention it here because although the novel’s politics and history are directly from our own world, to me it depicted an upper-class, colonial version of the city that I didn’t recognise; in combination with its second-person narrative, I had the impression of a story written for a similarly upper-class, preferably British, audience. By contrast, The Saint of Bright Doors, although (or perhaps because) it is set entirely in a fantasy world, draws on a present-day reality that is easy to connect with. It’s not the novelty of the setting but its familiarity that is unexpected; for the first time, I felt I was reading a book written for me, and not “me” as part of a generic Westernised audience. Acusdab and Luriat are not exotic settings and are not exoticised. The worldbuilding and cultural references feel natural in a way they never did in the books I read growing up, because they map more closely onto a known world than they do onto existing fantasy tropes. That said, precisely because the ordinary portrayal of such settings is uncommon in English-language literature, readers from outside the region will appreciate it too—as its broadly positive reception has indicated.

*

I came to know Chandrasekera’s work as a short story writer and essayist only in the past few years. In that time, I’ve read several of his stories thinking that they were too intellectual for me to really grasp. I had a sense that some underlying science, complex philosophy, or literary reference had passed over my head. I’m therefore delighted to disagree with Publisher’s Weekly’s assessment that The Saint of Bright Doors will “appeal only to fans of the most cerebral fantasies.” On my first time through the book, I skimmed over rare words like “apotropaic” and “tetralemma,” which weren’t (yet) in my vocabulary, and that was the extent of the pressure on my cerebrum. A second read confirmed I hadn’t missed anything critical. It’s possible to sink into the prose and worldbuilding and simply enjoy the narrative—the book does not force contemplation, but inspires it. From the start the writing, too, is captivating:

There are bulbous-bellied creatures that cling to the sides of people’s houses, moving as if they were sucking in breath or slurping up something immaterial … (p. 4)

—and humorous:

The family didn’t used to be like this, Mother-of-Glory says, sadly, as she prunes its tree. (p. 10)

Chandrasekera’s deft creation of a complex world is a powerful extension of his skill with prose as a short story writer. The extra space afforded by the novel format allows us to be taken along on this journey of creation, gradually discovering how this new, fantastical setting reflects the complexity of our own. After rereading the opening chapters to get my bearings in Acusdab and Luriat, the novelty of the fabulist elements, richness of setting, connection with the main characters, and the prose itself carried me smoothly through the rest of the book. Some of the novel’s twists were so unpredictable that I gave up on guessing what would happen next. Some mysteries are resolved as others appear, so that there is always something new to discover. Even among its Chekhov’s-gun plot devices and several neatly tidied-up threads, The Saint of Bright Doors manages to leave just enough questions unanswered—enough doors still open—to feel natural.

A reader could simply enjoy all these aspects of the book—its craft, the character development, the worldbuilding—and explore no further. The more “cerebral” angle might be the choice we can make to consider its real-life relevance. Fetter’s journey is encouragement to examine how we are manipulated by those in power and how our own world works. For those seeking further insights into the themes, I can recommend turning to Chandrasekera’s blog. I hope immersion in The Saint of Bright Doors might inspire readers to learn about a history that is more often presented in English for a colonial gaze, too often in a derogatory manner. As an example, in November 2023, The Economist published an article about the earlier-mentioned land grabs that are framed as archaeological discovery. It chose the headline, “Sri Lankans are squabbling over monuments,” the photo caption, “A plain stupa row,” and the standfirst, “Tamils and Sinhalese have found something else to row about.” Presumably, what The Economist dismissed as the original “row” is the civil war that killed over a hundred thousand people. This othering makes it all the more significant to see an English-language speculative novel in which such issues are included, in passing or at the forefront, without any hint of this colonial framing—a novel in which brown people being in conflict is only a reality and not a spectacle for white observers.

*

It's rare to come across a book that shifts the foundations of what one believes a genre to be, especially as an adult reader. That alone makes it worth treasuring. But I first finished reading this book in October 2023 and now, as I write this review, the genocide in Palestine has passed its hundredth day.

“I want to show people that the death and the loss we’ve learned to accept are neither a curse to be borne nor a price to be paid, but are the efficient functioning of Luriat, working as designed.” (pp. 121-122).

For those of us who have been protesting, who are feeling our lack of power in the face of colonialism “working as designed”—especially for those of us in the global majority that is constantly confronted with this powerlessness—literature that addresses structural violence, and the rewriting and re-remembering of history, is crucial. So is literature that shows people living, thriving, and making art not only in spite of oppression but in order to resist it; literature that shows ordinary people not too keen on being the ones to change the world but doing their part to help anyway. The Saint of Bright Doors is all of those things. It is crucial. It is hope.



Tehnuka (she/they) is a writer and volcanologist from Aotearoa New Zealand. She likes to find herself up volcanoes, down caves, and in unexpected places; everyone else, however, can find her at www.tehnuka.dreamhosters.com. She was the winner of the 2023 Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent in speculative fiction.
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